Recently, Azucena and I had the good fortune to visit a good friend, Mexican artist, Alfonso Maciel. Now living in México, Maciel lived in the city of San Francisco for quite a few years. In our Mission District, he became a well-known and respected member of the artistic community — he was director of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA) in those first, hard years, and was also founder of MCCLA’s Graphics Department, which became Mission Gráfica, a world-famous artistic organization that just celebrated its first 46 years of continuous creativity. 

Eventually, Maciel became Director of the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Program. He also ran a successful printing shop, right on 24th Street and Mission. You can’t get more Barrio-centered than that!

Today, having retired, Maciel and his beautiful and indefatigable wife, Mónica Rodríguez, live in a Magical Town (Pueblo Mágico) named Tlayacapan. It is located in the state of Morelos, about three hours from Mexico City and about a one-hour drive from Cuernavaca. Surrounded by the amazingly beautiful hills of Tlayacapan, a town of about 9,000 inhabitants, Alfonso Maciel has rekindled his love for painting. It is very clear that the natural beauty surrounding him has greatly helped his work. 

Tlayacapan, México. Photo: DianAzucena

I asked Maciel what had he taken to Mexico, from his very busy years in the SF Bay Area.

“What I brought here from my long years in San Francisco, is a profound appreciation for the concept of public art, which was my experience at MCC,” Maciel said. 

“After I retired, I went back to painting. Mony [his wife, Mónica Rodríguez] is my main fan. She has helped me in a very moving manner, taking care of dealings with the plumber, the blacksmith, the handyman, etc. That way, she generously allows me to concentrate on my painting.”

Maciel is clearly proud and thankful for the support he gets from his wife. When we climbed the stairs to his studio, he told me about another important way in which Mony helps him. “Usually, she comes up to the studio twice a day, with a couple of beers or a little bottle of wine … and she proceeds to read me some book out loud! Last year she read me 22 books! It is something that I wouldn’t even dare to ask … but, since she does it of her own free will … I thank her from the bottom of my heart!”

Alfonso Maciel and his wife Mónica Rodríguez in their home in Tlayacapan, México. Photo: DianAzucena

Although he has led a long, very busy and productive life, he seems happily energized. With a broad smile, he continues: “All this positive reinforcement and the beauty of Tlayacapan helps me in the grandiose project of this, the last portion of my life.”

“At my 79 years, I doubt that I’ll be able to accomplish something more important than this current project I call it, ‘El Paliacate’. The “Paliacate” is a handkerchief or scarf or bandana, either of a red or yellow color … so very Mexican! … worn over the head or around the neck, omnipresent on the style of Mexican clothing and traditionally worn by workers or rebels!”

His eyes shining with enthusiasm, Maciel proceeds to give me a long, erudite and exciting lecture about these, apparently, simple and modest scarfs. I want to make clear this brief column will not do justice to the intricacy of Maciel’s current project. It deserves (and will receive) a more detailed narrative, most likely when the project is finished and ready to be shared with the public. Nevertheless, I can advance that the plans are large, international and collaborative. 

Maciel continues: “The “Paliacate” is an artistic, collaborative, redeeming and historical project. It involves my initial painting of 34 colorful images with acrylic paint on large canvases, 130 by 130 centimeters. The images that I will paint will cover the outside edges of the paintings, leaving the center open. There, I am inviting other artists, from all states of Mexico, to paint their vision of the ‘Paliacate’. In my research of the origin and extent of the use of the “Paliacates,” I realized that this popular piece of clothing might actually originate far from our Mexican shores. Persia, most likely.”

Maciel’s research of the “Paliacates” have prompted him to combine images and ideas that stem from Islamic Sufism, mixed with poems written by the Tlatoani (poet and ruler) Nezahualcóyotl, a scholar, philosopher, warrior, architect, of the city-state of Texcoco, in pre-Columbian Mexico.

“To make the connections with the Persian origins of our Mexican “Paliacates,” Nezahualcoyotl will be represented [by] reciting poetry in Farsi characters, while Rumi, the Persian poet and philosopher, initiator of Sufism, will be represented reciting poetry with the symbolic volutes of pre-Columbian “Flor y Canto”, thus expressing the universality of Art and Philosophical thought”.

The paintings being created by Alfonso Maciel and his 33 guest painters, are, clearly, what can be considered “a culminating project”. Although past his youthful years, Alfonso Maciel’s enthusiasm is ageless and contagious. I left his house filled with ideas, aching to attack some projects of my own.

Alfonso Maciel and his “Paliacte Project” are a great example of someone that we should learn from. A person who is very much “alive and active”.
As a small homage to the enthusiasm felt in my encounter with this “Paliacate Project”, I bought 3 colorful “Paliacates” in a Veracruz mercado. I will wear them proudly, around my neck or head.